As children, we learned in the schoolyard that those who told on their peers were considered snitches. But today, the tattletales are in the headlines, telling on the tobacco companies and pointing the FBI toward the suspected Unabomber.
DANIELLE MASTERSON talked with students and adults about where they draw the line when it comes to telling on others.
Assistant district attorney, Riverside County
In the old days, we were simply prosecuting penal code violations or drug cases. Now the situation has changed in which we are almost monitoring society. A lot of the things that used to be administrative are cases in which the district attorney is being asked to file criminal charges. We’re getting a lot of whistle-blowers in tax and environmental violations and fair political practice.
Our job has changed quite a bit because the legislation has changed and the expectations of society have changed us. People are demanding more regulations--the job that we’re doing and the statutes that we’re asked to enforce were not heard of 20 or 30 years ago.
As the job has expanded, it has given citizens the opportunity to voice their concern to a particular agency. Now these whistle-blowers have a place to come.
A whistle-blower is not to be confused with a snitch, however. There’s quite a difference between the two. The snitch is someone who is usually receiving some sort of benefit. Usually he’s trading information for a reduced charge. A whistle-blower is someone who is part of an organization that has done something illegal and who has come forth on his own without trying to get some sort of quid pro quo.
Senior, Anaheim High School
Sometimes you don’t need to tell on someone if it’s not a big thing. But if they could hurt someone, then I would. For example, if the Unabomber was my brother, I would have told authorities where he was because he could go on killing other people. I would have to live with knowing that I could have saved those people. It would be partially my fault. That’s a lot of guilt to live with.
I’ve told on friends before. I have a friend who’s into drugs very heavily. I didn’t know what to do. So I told my parents and they told her parents. Because if she ends up dead, I’m going to regret it. Unfortunately, her mother didn’t believe it. She’s sort of in denial. My friend didn’t get angry with me. We’re still friends. I try to be with her more now so she won’t get into that.
She lives in another city. When she’s with her friends down there, she’ll use drugs. But she won’t when she’s with me. All I can do is try to be a good example to her. I try to show her that you can be a good person and you don’t have to use drugs to have a good time.
Secretary, Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Los Angeles
We believe that what people do in their personal lives is between them and God. It’s not for us to judge whether it’s the wrong thing or the right thing. But if they were hurting someone else, then we would have the civic responsibility to take that information to the proper authorities. In the Baha’i faith, we live our life by a high standard of personal and moral conduct. But it’s not for us to say or to gossip or to backbite about who may not be living up to that standard.
The only circumstance [in which] it would be appropriate to bring it to the Baha’i Administration would be if it were damaging to the Baha’i faith. Otherwise, it wouldn’t any of our business. An example of something damaging would be if the person were drinking. Baha’is don’t drink. But it wouldn’t be anyone’s business and wouldn’t be appropriate to report. If the person were carrying on in a very public way--"I’m a Baha’i and I’m happy to be drinking"--then it should be reported to our administration.
So there’s a civic and a spiritual responsibility.
The important thing is to recognize what we’ve done wrong and try to self-correct.
Marriage, family and child counselor, California Christian Center, Van Nuys
Ethically and spiritually, truth is one of the highest values. I think it’s important for children to know what the difference is between tattling and truth-telling. It is so important for a child to learn to tell the truth. It cannot be considered tattling when a person is reporting something that could violate someone’s safety.
I’m glad that there is a trend in which people can now speak to someone about when they have been wronged. We’re going to need that more and more in our society. If we’re going to catch up with the wrong things that are going on in society, we need people to be able to take a stand.
When we have people in recovery, one of the first things we tell them is that keeping secrets is toxic. We shouldn’t keep secrets that protect other people in a wrong way. In the end, we’re enabling them to continue in hurtful behavior, whether it’s drug dealing or child abuse. What we were raised with about not tattling has been used to our detriment, and it should be balanced.
Grade 8, Palms Middle School, Los Angeles
If it’s something that’s not really serious, then you can’t tell. But if it’s something that’s really serious that can hurt somebody, you can tell. It’s never OK to snitch. Snitching is telling just to be telling. Tattling is for a reason. If somebody kills someone and you know who the shooter is and the police are looking for them, then you should tell because that will help everyone. If you know who raped someone, you should tell who the rapist is.
I’ve known when people have carried guns on campus, but I’ve never told on them. That would be snitching. If you knew that person was intending to hurt someone, you can tell. But if they’re just showing it off, you’re not supposed to tell. I know a lot of people who do drugs. I won’t tell on them; that would be snitching.